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Tuesday Reviewsday: Shovels & Rope, Insects vs Robots and Wadada Leo Smith

"Infection" by Insects vs Robots.
InsectsVsRobots (via YouTube)

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If you don't have time to keep up with the latest in new music we've got the perfect segment for you: Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our music experts join our hosts in the studio to talk about their favorite new tunes. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman speaks with A Martinez.

Artist: Insects vs. Robots
Songs: "TheyllKillYaa," "Infection"

A couple of years ago on a fine evening of gallery openings at the Bergamot Station art complex in Santa Monica, a band was playing in the parking lot. They were fascinating, almost a rock-focused variation on the hippie folk-rock-psychedelia of the old English group the Incredible Sting Band. There was some banjo, some violin, some rootsy weirdness. They were called Insects vs. Robots. Fun name.

Went away for a little to see some art, came back 20 minutes later and now there was a band playing some intense jazz-rock, wild improvisations and expert ensemble work that may have been derived from 70s fusioneers Mahavishnu Orchestra. Violin here too, but of a rather different nature, sparring with guitar. They were called…wait! Insects vs. Robots? The same band?

Indeed it was. And all that — and much in between — is found in the course of just the six songs that make up the new album, "THEYLLKILLYAA." There's the multi-stage proggy sweep of the title song leading into the moody alt-rock of "Infection (Time Grows Thin)" leading to the old-timey folk-country-jazz "Become a Crow" leading into the Iberian-tinged acoustic instrumental "Matilda’s Galavant" with some rather ace flamenco-ish guitar runs leading into the horrified dream-impression "Fukushima" leading into the multi-faceted, 10-minute folk-prog fantasia "Ole Lujoke,"

Along the way there are some quirky time signatures and some quirky, well, quirks:  the high wordless vocal detours in the title song, a little whistling and some flamenco-ish guitar runs in "Matilda’s Galavant," the tinny piano and Gentle Giant-like prog pointillism of "Fukushima," among many other delightful idiosyncrasies. But also it serves to elevate and illustrate some serious themes, including the title song’s musing on the ultimate price paid by some who have stood up for their beliefs and the "Fukushima" meditation on that city’s earthquake-and-nuclear disaster in Japan ("my 300-year half-life").

Another thing to note is that for all the different aspects to the music, very little of it sounds much like Willie Nelson. Normally that would be a completely random comment, but not so much in this case, as the IvR frontman is one Micah Nelson, son of the Red Headed Stranger himself, joined in the band by violinist Nikita Sorokin, guitarist Milo Gonzalez, bassist Jeff Smith and drummer Tony Peluso. Nelson’s also the brother of Lukas Nelson, and sometimes plays in Lukas rootsy-rock band Promise of the Real, most notably when it has been on the road backing Neil Young for the last couple of years. And his band does’t sound much like that either. This band sounds like, well, Insects vs. Robots. Whatever it sounds like at any given moment.

Artist: Shovels & Rope
Album: "Little Seeds"
Songs: "I Know," "This Ride"

There are so many killer lines on this album that it’s hard to know where to begin. So here’s one from near the end, about endings: "It’s just like ‘Old Yeller’ and ‘Lonesome Dove,’ you hate how it ends but you can’t get enough." That’s from "This Ride," sung by Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, the South Carolina married couple that is Shovels & Rope, whose rattling roots-rock has built considerable buzz in recent years. And it’s a fitting denouement for an album that started a dozen songs before with "I Know" and its opening line, "I know exactly what you think you are."

Let’s sample some other lines that come between: "They botched my execution back in 1996," from, yeah, "Botched Execution." "By the looks of everyone it’s been a long two weeks" at the start of "St. Anne’s Day." "Help me please, I’m lost in myself," opening "Invisible Man." There’s a lot of rueing going on here, a lot of looking inward and lashing outward. But there’s also a lot of embracing of life’s rich pageant, whatever it offers.

That tone-setting knowledge of "I Know" comes from our two-as-one narrator, Hearst and Trent, via the reading of a notebook an apparent intimate/ex-intimate/adversary left on a bar counter. And that knowledge is forged into an emotional weapon, wielded with bitter bite at the inadvertently shared insecurities : "You’re hiding in the locker ‘cause someone took your towel." The response? "Ya know there used to be a day when I would try to help you out," she sings, before the coup de gras: "Call it even, baby. Take a bow." Absolutely withering, all the more for the mix of hurt and snark in her drawl. A dish served icy cold at this diner. (The video takes it another way, that dish served with confident flair.)

Even the less directly personal songs carry the tone. The Civil War tale "Missionary Ridge" is stark and present enough to echo into Iraq today. A plea for folks of all backgrounds to unite ("BWYR," which stands for "black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red") has a dark core: "Let’s all come together and share the bread, let’s all join hands and share the dread."

Dread’s the thread here, shared or tightly guarded. And the music fits it to a tee, still powerful and raw, rock with a rural edge, Hearst still pounding the drums, Trent slashing away on guitar, the pair building the fervor of street-corner preachers. The sound is fuller now than on earlier releases, more layers added (all still from just the two of them), but with no sacrifice of the direct thump of it all. That’s as true on this acoustic closing song as it is on the fully electric approach through most of the album.

But of course that "Old Yeller"/"Lonesome Dove" thing we cited at top gives way to a happy ending, right? Well…. there’s a lot to "This Ride" — the song, the ride of the album. The ride that is life. "It lifts and it give," the pair sings, the couple enjoying life after the birth of their first child. "It shames and it blames," too. "It opens our eyes and it heals." It’s tempting for us to just leave it there, but they don’t, the viewpoint shaped by cases of Alzheimer’s disease robbing several loved ones of their experiences: "It coughs and it slips and it falls and it steals / your memory, your dignity, your husbands and your mothers."

Artist: Wadada Leo Smith
Album: "America’s National Parks"
Songs: "New Orleans," "Yosemite"

Monumental may not seem the right word to describe music of intimate, somber beauty, music often of stillness. But it’s the word that keeps coming to mind regarding much recent work of prolific Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-based trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, particularly his ambitious series of works portraying American landscapes, both cultural and physical. His 2012 project "Ten Freedom Summers," four and a half hours long and written over the course of more than 30 years,  portraying key phases and figures of the civil rights movement, was one of three 2013 Pulitzer Prize music finalists. In 2014, "The Great Lake Suites" took a more pastoral look (and more compact, at 91 minutes) at the titular bodies. And now he combines the approaches with "America’s National Parks," another six-part suite.

Yes, Yellowstone is here, combining the geo-thermal volatility and sweeping vistas, the piece subtitled "The First National Park and the Spirit of America — the Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem." Sequoia/Kings Canyon ("The Giant Forest, Great Canyons, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cage Systems") and Yosemite ("The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill"), too, each with their respective mix of majesty and tranquility.

Midway through the latter, which closes the suite, Smith’s Golden Quintet fully captures both at once, with Anthony Davis striking bold, sustained chords on piano, Ashley Walters drawing out long, rich notes on cello and Smith playing as if standing atop Half Dome and calling out, shofar-like, to the whole valley to take communion with the great wonders if the surroundings. Though it’s more than that for him. In the liner notes he’s quoted as dismissing the notion floated by Ken Burns in his documentary series "The National Parks: America’s Best Idea," that these locales are like cathedrals. Smith wants us to celebrate the scope of a nation that has made these sites all of ours, open to and belonging to everyone, and for us to become part of them and the grand sweep of this nation’s history and people they represent.

Perhaps needless to say, this is hardly your conventional travelogue of the great outdoors, the tour beginning in a city, New Orleans ("The National Culture Park USA"), where jazz, among other things, spring from the unprecedented confluences, the music in its 20 minutes conjuring the mysterious Buddy Bolden, considered one of the key figures in the creation of modern jazz. The second piece isn’t even about a place, but a person, titled "Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park." Jackson presents Southern, who among other things founded the journal "The Black Perspective in Music," worthy of National Park status herself for her sweeping perspective on music and cultures.

The epic centerpiece of the suite, though, is about the Mississippi River ("Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River — a National Memorial Park"). Each of the pieces titles come with a date of the park’s designation. This one is "c. 5000 BC," and in its 30 minutes, Smith and crew attempt to span not just the geography and cultures linked by the Mississippi, but those millennia of its flow. The music here goes from slow and spare to roiling fury. It is, in a word, monumental.